Drought trickles through to Gamtoos Valley farms

Tough times ahead as low Kouga Dam levels force new irrigation allocation, cutting last year’s quota in half

Gamtoos Irrigation Board CEO Pierre Joubert looks at the dam level
Gamtoos Irrigation Board CEO Pierre Joubert looks at the dam level
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

A picture paints a thousand words and the view from the top of Kouga Dam this week told the whole story.

On Wednesday, the dam level was down to 7.6% and the tough new water allocation to Gamtoos Valley farmers – just 20% of their normal quota from the Gamtoos Irrigation Board – made sense.

At full capacity, the dam holds 268 000m³ of water, descends to a depth of 60m and stretches 32km into the Kouga Mountains.

But now its length has dwindled by a third and it is just 15m deep.

The echoing calls of birds accentuated the emptiness and large carp and barble – facing dwindling oxygen supplies linked to the reduced water volume and oxygen-sapping trees still rotting beneath the surface after they were submerged when the dam was filled in 1970 – could be seen circling far below on the surface of the dam.

The new annual irrigation allocation of 1 600m³/ ha, which comes into force at the end of this month, cuts last year’s quota by half, and it clearly means tough times ahead for already hard-pressed valley farms.

It’s a situation Gamtoos Irrigation Board CEO Pierre Joubert, who has lived in the valley for 36 years, understands all too well. But there is no option.

The Kouga Dam delivers water to the Gamtoos farmers and also a relatively small but key supply to the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

This is especially important for areas like Kwanobuhle which the municipality, even with the latest engineering know-how, has not yet managed to link up with the robust Gariep-Nooitgedacht system.
The Kouga Dam is fed by the Kouga and Baviaanskloof rivers and the raw water that the board releases for irrigation is of excellent quality.

But below the dam, after the Kouga is joined by the heavily mineralised Groot River, and they combine to form the Gamtoos, the quality dropped off sharply.

For this reason farmers did not irrigate straight from the Gamtoos because the water damaged their orchards and crops, Joubert said.

Fish ecologists also pointed to the importance of the existing flow for the survival of the Gamtoos estuary as an important nursery for fish like kob.

Joubert said dam water was delivered via canals and pipes to the 200 Gamtoos farmers and there were some 800 points where they could withdraw water. Each of these points was monitored with a gauge which his team checked once a month.

“The allocation is based on what is in the dam now and the inflow modelling for the year by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

“This is to inform the farmers so they can abstract evenly and not all at once because then there will not be enough water. If their quota is finished, we have to turn the taps off.

“They were very cooperative with last year’s allocation, so we are very hopeful that we will come through this difficult time together.”

Lana Fourie, manager of the well-known Tolbos farm stall in Patensie, said the drought was a hot topic among locals and tourists.

“The tourists visit the dam and tell us it’s scary it’s so empty. Everyone is very worried but the agreement is we are all in this together.”